For those of us who participated in the modern-day Peasant’s Revolt (as Rod Liddle so aptly described the Brexit vote in this week’s Spectator), we must have known in our hearts that it was all doomed, that the establishment would never permit us to leave the EU. For a day or two last week, Mrs Day’s grotesque deal having provoked condemnation from all sides of the House, it seemed that a new leader might emerge and that something of Brexit might be salvaged. Even at this late stage, Article 50 could be revoked, and our March withdrawal delayed, to allow time for a new deal, or at least a managed no deal, to be brokered. But the political establishment has moved quickly to shore up Mrs May’s position.
On Thursday, it seemed that Remainers and Brexiteers alike were agreed that the deal was worse than staying it. Its defects were succinctly summarised by Dominc Raab, the Brexit Secretary, in his resignation letter: The arrangements for Northern Ireland represented ‘a very real threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom’, the terms of the indefinite backstop arrangement amounted to ‘a hybrid of the EU Customs Union and Single Market obligations’ without ‘any democratic control over the laws to be applied, nor the ability to decide to exit the arrangement’, and as a consequence, the phase two trade negotiations would be ‘severely prejudiced’ against the UK. Raab should know: he negotiated the deal. Even Nick Timothy, May’s former advisor, declared the deal ‘a capitulation’. Writing in the Telegraph, he noted that it comprehensively failed the tests, the key principles, that May herself set out in her Lancaster House speech of January 2017 – the speech that raised so many of our hopes. Timothy should know: he drafted the Lancaster House speech.
May’s spiel about ‘delivering’ Brexit, restoring control over this and that, was at last being exposed for what it really was. All that has been agreed is that we will continue to pay billions to remain in the Customs Union pending a yet-to-be agreed trading arrangement over which the EU will have the final say. What will be left of ‘control’ over our fisheries and our borders, or of possible free trade deals, once the negotiations have been concluded to the EU’s satisfaction is anyone’s guess since the EU will regard the backstop as forming the basis of our ‘Future Economic Partnership’. As Michel Barnier has made clear, Britain’s future trading relationship will now be based on Britain’s remaining in a single customs territory with the EU.
What a difference a couple of days makes. One can only admire the speed and skill of the Number Ten spin operation. Yes, the deal may not be perfect, but it is the best we could negotiate. There are inevitably compromises in any negotiations. Mrs May is a determined and resilient leader who has fought tirelessly to secure ‘the best deal’ in ‘the national interest’. Besides – and this is the clincher – since this is the only deal on offer, the alternative is either ‘no deal’ (which the government has spent months depicting as ‘catastrophic’ as part of a carefully orchestrated campaign, and for which it has deliberately made minimal preparations) or ‘remain’. So, if you want Brexit, any sort of Brexit, you had better back her. If you don’t, you’ll get a general election and Corbyn.
Will this blackmail succeed? At present, the House of Commons arithmetic is stacked against the deal getting through in December. But a month is a long time and Mrs May’s supporters must be banking on scaring enough Brexiteers and DUP members with the threat of Corbyn, and on attracting enough Labour MPs from Leave voting constituencies who support a soft Brexit, to tip the balance.
Will Corbyn stand firm? He gave a fine speech in response to Mrs May on Friday, made all the salient points about us surrendering our sovereignty (a future Labour government would also thereby be hamstrung), and announced that Labour would be opposing the deal. Whatever one thinks of Corbyn, he at least understands, like Michael Foot before him, that the EU is a bureaucratic antidemocratic monstrosity.
For Conservatives, the prospect of a Corbyn government is not a pleasant one. But at least we shall be able to vote it out of office after five years. If Mrs May’s shabby deal is implemented, there will be no comeback. It might even come about that, out of the ashes of defeat, the Conservative party will rediscover some true conservative principles.
All therefore depends on Corbyn standing firm.